Special Reports

Josh Powell’s pretense of innocence ends in atrocity

‘There but for the grace of God,” is a conventional and charitable attitude toward people who get in trouble with the law. The idea is that good guys and bad guys share a common humanity that the good guys do well to ack-nowledge.

It doesn’t work, though, in the case of Josh Powell. Some people really don’t have a human conscience.

Powell, who burned his children alive Sunday, appears to have been a sociopath – an exceptionally stealthy one.

For more than two years, he’s been the only “person of interest” in the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Susan Cox Powell, during a supposed camping trip in the middle of a frigid Utah night.

His lack of cooperation with the investigation has frustrated police, and they have yet to find her body. Did he kill her? At this point, it’s reasonable to assume the worst. A man who is capable of immolating his 5-year-old and 7-year-old sons is more than capable of killing their mother.

The public wants to blame someone when something this horrifying happens to children, but so far there’s no indication that the courts or child welfare authorities made any mistakes in allowing Powell supervised visits with the two boys. He was just too good at hiding what he was.

He’d never been charged with his wife’s death. He was a master of maintaining pretenses. He could do outward shows of affection. He could break down in tears on cue. He could come across as a devoted father trying to keep a family going despite a missing mom.

Without radically skewing the custody laws against biological parents in general, there was initially no legal basis for keeping the children out of Powell’s home.

The wholesome faade began to crack in September, when police said they found hundreds of pornographic images – including child porn – on computers belonging to Powell’s father, Steve, in whose house the family was then living.

Steve Powell went to jail. The home fell under suspicion. Susan’s parents, Charles and Judith Cox of Puyallup, won temporary custody of their grandchildren.

Six days ago, Josh Powell lost the next round. Judge Kathryn Nelson of Pierce County Superior Court refused to return the children to his custody until he’d undergone a probing psycho-sexual evaluation.

Something must have triggered Powell’s atrocity Sunday. He may have realized he’d never get his boys back and decided to avenge himself on the Coxes. He may have feared he would soon be exposed, perhaps by Utah investigators, perhaps by the boys themselves as they began to articulate memories of their mother’s disappearance.

Police say the burning was calculated, not impulsive. All the evidence points to a carefully planned arson.

It’s not surprising. Powell himself – the face he presented to the courts, the public, his friends – appears to have been a grand, skillfully sustained deception. On Sunday, the deception ended in unspeakable horror.